British filmmaker Mike Leigh is known for his very particular way of making films. Rather than start with a script, Leigh works with his actors in a designated improvisation period before filming begins. The director provides sketched-out ideas and characters, but the actors become full collaborators in the creation of the story and the making of the film.
It's a model that's used by other filmmakers, often in comedies. Christopher Guest takes a similar approach in his mockumentaries, as does Larry David in the HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm. But Leigh's technique is, by all reports, a very rigorous process with a different goal. The intent is to strip away intent — to capture on film the spontaneous comedy and tragedy of everyday life.
Among Leigh's gentlest and funniest films is the oddball 1990 family portrait, Life is Sweet. Reissued to Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, the new edition features digitally remastered image and sound, a new audio commentary track with Leigh, and the usual complement of critical essays and archival documents.
Life is Sweet depicts a few weeks in the summer of a working-class family outside of London. It's an invitation, really. Leigh and his collaborators are cordially extending a proposal to the viewer to spend some time with these people, in this place and time.
Jim Broadbent plays family patriarch Andy, a catering chef who is long on big plans but short on the follow-through. Andy's wife Wendy (Alison Steadman) is the kind of loving but anxious sort who smooths everything over with a running patter of small talk and jokes.
Andy and Wendy's twin daughters, 22 years old, still live at home. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is sensible and still, with an androgynous style and an appreciation for the simple things in life, like a pint at the pub with her fellow plumbers. Her sister Nicola, on the other hand, is a mess. Played by Jane Horrocks, Nicola is a walking spasm of fear and self-loathing — feelings she directs outwards toward her exasperated but concerned family.
How to make a better Superman movie is the Sphinx’s riddle of superhero cinema. There’s nostalgia for Richard Donner’s soaring but cumbersome 1978 original and Richard Lester’s able but somewhat nutty sequel. Some critics have come around to a fondness for Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns, although I tell can’t wrap my arms around a movie about Superman returning after a five-year sabbatical to battle Lex Luthor—again—and Kryptonite—again (oh yeah, he has a kid).
So, the news that Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) would produce a reboot of the Superman saga directed by Zack Snyder (300; Watchmen) was enough to catapult legions of Super-fanatics into delirium. The result, Man of Steel, isn’t the reimagined overhaul many anticipated. The origin myth remains intact, with some incremental but significant tweaking, chiefly an increased emphasis on the Krypton backstory. And anyone looking for Christopher Reeve’s smile or John Williams’ memorable score will come away empty-handed (although Hans Zimmer’s thundering soundtrack will reverberate in your head for days).
This isn’t your (grand)father’s man of steel; this one has only the slightest of smirks littering a fable that takes its reinvention deadly serious. And I’m fine with that.
Before he becomes Superman, immigrant-from- Krypton Kal-El (Henry Cavill) must discover himself and the reason he’s an all-powerful stranger in a strange world. The film only specifically references the lofty Superman moniker once, but the religious symbolism is unabashed. Kal-El is the son of two fathers. One is by birth, Jor-El (Russell Crowe), who jettisons his son from a dying planet to one where he knows his son will live as a god but hopefully serve as a savior. Jor-El’s consciousness joins Kal-El to Earth, an omnipotent presence guiding his son’s maturation, and anyone willing to believe.
The other earthly patriarch is Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner), a Kansas farmer without children of his own with wife Martha (Diane Lane), who shelters his adopted son and urges him to conceal his powers from a suspicious and fearful world, even at Jonathan’s own expense. It’s a reality Kal-El grapples with as kid Clark Kent growing up in Smallville, Kan., where he swallows his powers in the face of bullies and stifles any public display of those super-abilities, even if, according to Pa Kent, people die.
What Maisie Knew
Opens Friday (see times below)
Carefully written and beautifully photographed, the child custody drama What Maisie Knew is an undeniably moving film with strong performances from everyone involved.
It's also extremely hard to watch, and I don't know that I would recommend it. To parents, anyway. Maisie takes the idea that putting a child in peril is inherently dramatic, then stretches that notion to its breaking point.
Julianne Moore and Steve Coogan play Susanna and Beale, parents of the bright and good-hearted 6-year-old girl Maisie (Onata Aprile). Susanna is an aging rock star, Beale a British art dealer. They live in a high-end Manhattan apartment building, when they're not jetting around for the demanding business of Art. The film opens with Beale and Susanna in the final, terminal stages of splitting up and Maisie is witness to fights of astonishing emotional brutality. As played by the still, sad-eyed Oprile, Maisie doesn't react. She just absorbs it all.
Events progress and the custody battle grows bitter. Susanna changes the locks. Beale attempts to steal Maisie away from her grade school class. When Beale marries the family's live-in nanny Margo (Joanna Vanderham), Susanna fires back by marrying himbo bartender Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard). Poor Maisie is batted around between households and left entirely abandoned on more than one occasion.
Standard operating procedure for a divorce drama, maybe, but this film is relentless. The entire first hour is scene after brutal scene of Beale and Susanna wielding Maisie as a weapon between them — when they remember she's there at all. The 6-year-old spends time where 6-year-olds ought not be: At smoke-filled parties, in lonely bars, on cramped tour coaches and in strangers' homes.
It's wrenching, and the story threatens constantly to plunge into emotionally manipulative melodrama. But directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel keep from going over the edge by telling the story from right behind Maisie's eyes. The camera lingers at curious heights and vantages, and observes carefully selected moments. Maisie sees more than the adults know. She's desperate for anyone solid to hold on to, and she navigates as best she can.
Lincoln and Margo, the new spouses, come into the story just as we (and Maisie) need them most. They're not perfect people, but they're sane and decent. The film offers up at least one moment of pure cinematic catharsis when Lincoln comes directly to Maisie's defense. "You don't deserve her," he tells Susanna, speaking directly for the audience. Whew. That needed to be said.
The film is an adaptation of the novel by Henry James, with many liberties taken by screenwriters Nancy Doyne and Carroll Cartwright. Maisie may flirt with melodrama, but it's not exploitative and the filmmakers have their reasons for putting Maisie through the wringer as they do. The film has something to say about family and children in this modern life. Watch how and when the characters use their cell phones. It's all of a piece, and the story ends well, with a certain rounded elegance.
But it sure is hard on the stomach. I admired What Maisie Knew, but I can't say that I enjoyed it.
I first saw Swimming to Cambodia — the film version of Spalding Gray's groundbreaking monologue — on VHS my senior year of high school, by way of my first serious girlfriend Courtney. A fellow theater nerd, Courtney was also a dedicated goth girl and introduced me to many new and exotic things, like Bauhaus records and the BBC punk comedy The Young Ones.
As cool girlfriends often do, Courtney improved my taste and expanded my horizons. Here was an entirely riveting performance that featured one man, sitting behind a desk, talking about war and art and sex and drugs. About Nixon and Kent State, secret bombings and Thai brothels. About "an invisible cloud of evil that circles the earth and lands at random at places. Like Iran. Beirut. Germany. Cambodia. America."
It rather blew my mind. I knew nothing about experimental theater or performance film — forget about Southeast Asia. But I knew this was something different from our after-school rehearsals of Brigadoon, and that it represented a different trajectory if I wanted to follow along.
Incredibly, Swimming to Cambodia has never had an official U.S. DVD release until now. New this week from the pop culture archivists at Shout! Factory, Swimming to Cambodia features the full-length 1987 film along with a new interview with director Jonathan Demme.
Swimming to Cambodia is structured around Gray's experience working on the Academy Award-winning 1984 film, The Killing Fields. Gray spent two months filming in Thailand and he tells of his adventures, during his copious downtime, with Bangkok nightlife and the local high-grade marijuana. These are the funny bits. But Gray also goes into great depth about what he learned there concerning the recent history of Southeast Asia, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent Cambodian Genocide. For props, he has a desk, a notebook, a microphone, two pull-down maps and a glass of water. Behind him is a backlit projection screen. He simply talks, and you can't take your eyes off him.
Slight, shaggy and sentimental, the crime comedy Stand Up Guys has exactly three virtues to recommend it.
Those would be the film's trio of lead actors: Al Pacino, Christopher Walken and Alan Arkin. Nobody's gunning for glory with the performances here, but nobody phones it in, either. Anyway, these three could make a 90-minute film talking about the U.S. Tax Code and still be interesting.
Pacino headlines as Val, a career criminal just getting out of the joint after a 28-year stint. Val took the fall for his crew after a botched robbery and ended up doing the heavy time by refusing to rat on his friends. He is, as they say, a stand up guy.
Walken plays one of those old pals, a now-retired thief who goes by the name of Doc. When Val gets out of prison, it's Doc that comes to pick him up and take him out on the town. Understandably, Val is ready to party. So Doc dutifully escorts him to a bar, then a brothel, then a hospital. The 70-something Val, it seems, can't quite party like he used to.
There's another complication: Doc has been ordered by the local mafia don to kill his old friend Val. Doc doesn't want to, but he's on the hook — either Val goes into a shallow grave, or Doc does.
The title Star Trek Into Darkness remains just as nebulous by the time the closing credits roll as it does during a chase prologue along the Class M Planet of Nibiru. Fortunately, director J.J. Abrams inadvertently provides a number of alternate titles along the way. Into Darkness is the second installment of Star Trek’s look into yesteryear, the continuation of an alternate timeline created in the 2009 Star Trek, also directed by Abrams, which chronicles the adventures of the fledgling crew of the Starship Enterprise.
Just call it Star Trek Babies II.
In essence, Into Darkness is really about the evolving relationship between Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto), although their bromance usually boils down to scenes like Kirk’s misty separation anxiety at the news that Spock is being reassigned to another ship, or Spock’s jealousy emotion being triggered when Kirk enlists the duplicative services of beautiful blond science officer Carol (Alice Eve). What hampers any emotional heft, however, is the misapprehension that their relationship has always been about the characters, discounting the time-tested rapport developed between William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy.
That said, Pine and especially Quinto prove capable as they, along with a more prominently featured Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew, face a threat from within: Starfleet officer-turned-terrorist John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly intelligent super soldier whose covert design goes sideways after he breaks loose from the moorings of his Federation minders.
Just call it Star Trek: The Wrath of Bourne.
Early on, Abrams hints at Star Trek’s political and social heritage with allegory critical of the current war on terror, including policies favoring indiscriminate hits on high-value targets and drone missile attacks. (Poor Klingons, formerly emblematic of the threat and decay of the Soviet Empire, are now stand-ins for modern day terrorists.) But any such high mindedness quickly evaporates in the fog of a script that is equally lighthearted and incomprehensible, along with a hellfire of 3D special effects and Abrams’ trademark visual quirks.
Just call it Star Trek: Into Lens Flares.
Unlike the sublime mix of rediscovery and homage that fueled the 2009 reboot, Into Darkness eventually chokes on the umbilical cord tethered to its heritage. Trouble with a Tribble or one of a dozen “manual auxiliary rerouted power couplings” are cute, but homage soon crosses the line into unoriginality, from the choice of villain to the mashed-up tropes to a scene in the final act featuring such shameless aping that it converts the sacrosanct into self-parody.
Into Darkness is an entertaining retread that also feels like an elongated TV episode with a bigger budget and explosions that come at the expense of the series’ humanism. This next generation Star Trek is reworked and replicated for today’s generation of moviegoers.
Just call it Star Trek: Attack of the Clones.
The latest and maybe final film from director Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects isn't the movie that it first appears to be. About halfway through, the story pivots and another film emerges. Then a most curious thing happens: It isn't that movie, either.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a formerly upper-crusty sort whose life is upended when her financier husband Martin (Channing Tatum) goes to prison for insider trading.
When Martin gets out of jail, Emily does her best to pick up the pieces, but she's paralyzed with severe depression and panic attacks. After a half-hearted suicide attempt, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) prescribes a series of antidepressant drugs.
Some work, some don't, and some cause Emily to experience truly worrisome sleepwalking episodes. We also learn that the good doctor is participating in clinical trials for an experimental drug called Ablixa. Meanwhile, Emily's former shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones) gets involved and the plot thickens.
It's around this point that Side Effects makes its first lateral leap. What appeared to be an issue movie about the evils of Big Pharma becomes a twisty thriller in the key of Hitchcock. Dark details emerge concerning Emily's past, and Dr. Banks' as well. A crime is committed and a murder mystery is hatched.
Filmmaker Shane Carruth made his bones in the indie film world with the 2004 science fiction puzzle Primer. The ultra-low budget film, concerning a group of engineers who accidentally invent time travel, collected the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival.
It's become something of a legend in filmmaking circles: Primer was made for a little over $7,000 with Carruth acting as director, writer, producer, cinematographer, editor, co-star and musical composer. For fans of thinky, conceptual sci-fi, it's a real gem. After seeing it on DVD, I spent hours online trying to figure out all the time travel paradoxes.
Carruth's long-anticipated second film, Upstream Color, premiered just last month in theaters and has already been ported to DVD, thanks to Carruth's typically unorthodox method of self-distribution. The film is still popping up in art houses around the country and, in fact, it may still wind up playing here in town.
Upstream Color is a fantastic film, one of the year's best so far, and a giant leap forward for Carruth as a storyteller and filmmaker. If Primer was startling, Upstream Color is stunning. It's like watching a pencil sketch artist discover oil paints.
Once again, Carruth writes, directs, acts and composes the music. Clearly, he's a hand-on sort of fellow. Like Primer, Upstream Color pleasurably confounds by refusing to play by the rules of traditional movie narrative.
The story, so far as it can be told:
Amy Seimetz (The Killing) plays Kris, a young urban professional who is assaulted in nightclub by a nameless thief. She's forced to ingest a rare larva, which we learn has been taken from the root system of a particularly exotic orchid. The larva drains her free will and the thief spends the next few days in Kris' home, walking her through the motions as she liquidates all her assets and hands them over. He also forces her, for some reason, to transcribe Thoreau's Walden.
Kris awakens several days later with no memory of what happened. But her life as she knew it is gone, as is a portion of her mind and personality. She is subsequently summoned by another mysterious stranger, who surgically removes the larva and seems to be somehow harvesting her psychic misery. Kris returns to the city a shell of her former self.
One day she meets a kindred spirit on the train. Disgraced financier Jeff (Carruth) appears to have suffered the same trauma as Kris. Together they try to assemble their fractured memories. The two seem to be developing a gestalt-mind bond, where identity and memory blend and merge. Details elsewhere in the film suggest that Kris and Jeff have become part of the life cycle of another organism entirely. They sense, too, that there are more people out there in the same desperate situation.
In every conceivable way, Tony Stark’s foe in Iron Man 3 is himself. It starts with an enemy born of Stark’s chronic dickishness, a spurned fan-turned-supervillain not unlike Buddy Pine-cum-Syndrome in The Incredibles. It continues with a superhero whose egotistical compulsion to unmask his true identity continues to put an ever present bullseye on him and his scant loved ones. But Stark’s biggest adversary is his own psyche, an id now fractured by insecurity—indeed, it’s wry genesis that the film is essentially a 130-minute psychiatrist’s couch confession.
Beneath his renowned wisecracks and cocksuredness, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) faces a new reality spawned from the Big Apple battle royale finale to The Avengers. It bears mentioning that Iron Man was the first installment of the now-interwoven Marvel Cinematic Universe. The years since have seen gods and genetic behemoths as heroes, and mutants and aliens from other dimensions as villains.
Against this backdrop, Stark is a self-described “man in a can,” seized by fits of anxiety when a child fan merely asks about “what happened in New York.” (More 9/11 allegory? Never mind, let’s just move on.) While the 42 iterations of armor Stark has fashioned in the basement his cliffside laboratory appear the embodiment of an obsessive mind, they are actually the ongoing realization of Stark’s fateful “I am Iron Man” declaration at the end of the first film. The man and the machine are becoming inseparable, an evolution propelled by equal parts ego and envy.
If you only pay attention to what cycles around to Redbox, Netflix or your old-school video rental place, you might get the sense that only a handful of new home video titles get released each week.
Not so. While the high-profile Hollywood titles get the most attention, new DVDs, Blu-rays and digital releases in any given week number in the dozens — new movies, old reissues, TV series collections, independent films, documentaries, foreign films and a disturbing number of Hallmark Channel original movies.
If you're willing to spend an entirely disproportionate amount of time in front of the TV — and I am — you can find some odd gems. To wit: The archivists at Paramount have started rolling out Blu-ray season set editions of the enduring syndicated classic Star Trek: The Next Generation. The series' third season is being released this week, with all 26 episodes plus some nice bonus materials, including a writers' reunion hosted by Seth MacFarlane. (Several ST: TNG writers went on to create shows like Battlestar Galactica, CSI and 24.)
They've also released the frankly awesome one-off Blu-ray special The Best of Both Worlds, a feature-length presentation of the series' high-water moment: The two-part cliffhanger in which Captain Picard is kidnapped by the nefarious cybernetic villains known as the Borg. I geeked out on this Blu-ray before the plastic wrap hit the floor.
For the uninitiated, the Borg are one of science fiction’s all-time great villains, a collective hivemind of cyborgs who fly around the universe in a giant cube, “assimilating” any culture they come across. In the two-episode story arc presented here, the Borg abduct Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and subsume his consciousness into the collective.